“The stars kind of collided”
Debra Saunders-White, a first-generation college graduate born to a North Carolina sharecropper and a used car salesman, on Friday became chancellor-elect of N.C. Central University.
She’s the 11th chancellor in NCCU’s 110-year history and the first woman to serve in more than a temporary capacity in the role.
“The promise of higher education is what makes our eternal soul what it is in America,” Saunders-White said.
She starts the $285,000-a-year job June 1, replacing Charlie Nelms, who abruptly announced his departure in July 2012.
Since 2011, Saunders-White has worked for U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan as deputy assistant secretary for higher education programs.
In a news release issued by NCCU, Duncan stated: “As a first-generation college graduate herself, Deb truly understands both the opportunity that higher education provides and the challenges that so many of our nation’s young people face in accessing and affording college.”
She spent 15 years working for IBM, starting in 1979, evolving from systems engineer to public-sector marketing. From 1994 to 1998, she taught college-prep mathematics at St. George’s School in Newport, R.I., where she developed a tech-focused course in which students invested in the New York Stock Exchange.
In 1999, Saunders-White became assistant provost for technology at Hampton University, which went on to become one of the most wired universities in the United States according to Forbes Magazine and the Princeton Review.
She joined the University of North Carolina Wilmington in 2006 as vice chancellor for information technology systems. She was credited with improving emergency communications, innovative use of mobile services and establishing a mentoring program for at-risk teenagers in the Wilmington Housing Authority.
Reggie McCrimmon, NCCU’s student body president, was part of the selection committee that recommended three finalists, Saunders-White among them, to UNC System President Tom Ross.
“She’s a great choice,” McCrimmon said. “A hard choice. We sent three candidates. (Ross) told us he wanted us to make it tough on him. I think he did a great job.”
McCrimmon admires her ability to navigate any situation and to come into a room and engage people.
“Students can see when it’s genuine and real,” he said. “I look forward to her bringing her energy to NCCU.”
Saunders-White didn’t seem to hesitate about taking this role in Durham.
“When you take a look at where you want to land, the stars kind of collided for me when I saw this opportunity emerge,” she said. “Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful people at North Carolina Central University. A rich history. The opportunity to really make a difference for the citizens of North Carolina. And to be part of Tom Ross’s team. Who would pass that up?”
Ross, for his part, expects her high-tech background to be an asset as the UNC system implements its five-year strategic plan, which calls for schools to move more aggressively into online enterprises.
“She brings a level of expertise in technology and e-learning and in developing courses using technology that is really quite rare in campus leadership, so she is going to be somebody we call on a lot to help us as we begin the strategic plan,” he said.
Saunders-White said that NCCU “is on the right path,” but that she wants to elevate NCCU’s brand so that the school “will continue to set standards not just for Durham, not just for North Carolina, but internationally.”
She wants to build an irresistible portfolio of programs at the historically black university: “I want students to look at us and say, ‘There’s no place in the country I’d rather be than right here in Durham at this university.’”
Saunders-White, one of the first 100 African-American women to graduate from the University of Virginia and one of the first to rise through the corporate ranks at IBM, also hopes to serve as a role model for other women.
“I combine all of that experience and hope that my sisters out there will see: Hold fast to your dreams, work hard and you will achieve,” she said.
Marybeth Gasman, a professor at University of Pennsylvania and an expert on HBCU’s, called Saunders-White’s selection an important choice, because of her national experience, her familiarity with the federal government and her gender.
“Although women are more likely to be president at HBCUs than majority institutions, there is still much progress to be made,” Gasman said.
She recommended that Saunders-White take a listening tour of campus to identify strengths and needs.
“I also hope she will respect faculty governance, promote student success, begin reaching out to alumni and funders immediately, and be a national voice on educational issues,” Gasman said.
Charla Perry, an 18-year-old freshman at NCCU, welcomed the announcement of a new female chancellor.
“It’s cool to see a woman stepping up to the plate,” Perry said. “Women do care a little more. They’re more nurturing. Maybe she’ll treat us like one of her own.”
At a reception in the W.G. Pearson Cafeteria banquet hall on Friday afternoon, hundreds from the university faculty and staff, as well as the Durham community, stood in line to meet the new chancellor-elect.
Cora Cole-McFadden, Durham’s mayor pro tem and an NCCU Eagles alumna, called the selection of Saunders-White “a blessing.”
“I expect that Durham is going to do even greater things with her here,” Cole-McFadden said. “The future is going to be even better than the past.”
Sen. Mike Woodard, D-Durham, said, “I think she’s a great choice. I’m impressed with her energy.”
Wynetta Lee, who joined NCCU as dean of the education school last year, said she is truly looking forward to the new chancellor to start her job.
“The sky’s the limit,” Lee said. “Who knows? We might even go past the sky.”
Herald-Sun reporter Gregory Childress contributed to this report. Follow Wes Platt on Twitter at @HS_WesPlatt. Connect on Facebook at facebook.com/wesplattheraldsun.